Report of the General Secretary

SSTA General Secretary Report to Congress 2023

Friday 12 May 2023

What can happen in a year? Last year I said.

We are on the verge of a new era in Scottish education. The things that we have accepted as normal, if there ever could be anything normal in education, is about to change. But we must learn from the past and not make the same mistakes again.

As you all know, the Government embarked on a new direction for education. The various OECD reports, the International Panel of Experts reports, the Muir Education Review and the Reforming Qualifications and Assessment Review being conducted by Professor Louise Hayward that is due be completed at the end of the month.

Unfortunately, the track record of the Government on some of these reviews is to ignore the teacher trade union voice. The Scottish Government has relied on the view of the ‘establishment’ who ‘know best’ to make policy decisions. Speaking to a few selected teachers is not the voice of the profession. They have no mandate but are only speaking on behalf of themselves. They don’t represent the profession and are not accountable to the profession, and most importantly they do not represent the views of SSTA members.

The SSTA is the only voice of Scottish secondary teachers and must be seen as partner in Scottish education. Government and others must not by-pass the SSTA this time or the same mistakes will be made again.

I hope with the new Cabinet Secretary Jenny Gilruth, who was a teacher, that there is new dawn, and the teacher voice comes front and centre. The SSTA is ready to work in partnership with the Scottish Government to bring about the changes that the Scottish education system needs to develop and thrive.

National Qualifications

The SSTA has challenged the SQA’s plan to revert to the national qualification pre-pandemic requirements in 2024 on two fundamental grounds. The pupils are not ready and most importantly the teachers are not ready. Schools are still addressing education recovery; pupils moving into the senior phase are not in the place they need to be if they are to meet their true potential. This together with the proposals in the Hayward Review will fundamentally change the assessment and qualification system in the very near future, is a ‘foolhardy’ step by SQA and further unnecessary source of teacher workload. The SSTA Education Committee went to members to seek their views.

A member said in response in the SSTA survey.

 “I have not spoken to anyone who is in favour of this. Many of us completed the consultative surveys from the SQA and it appears we, the teachers’ voice, have been completely ignored. It is more likely that there will be a detrimental impact, on pupil stress and teacher workload, by bringing them back.” 

To reintroduce pre-pandemic exam arrangements in 2024 when teachers say that only 12% of pupils are ready is a stubborn and self-interest move by an organisation that is oblivious of the realities in secondary schools.

“The damage to pupils’ learning and the task for teachers in trying to bridge the gap cannot be underestimated, and the SQA must think again. Members are concerned about the wellbeing of their pupils and the immeasurable workload demands on a profession that is already ‘on its knees’. The SQA needs to listen to the teachers who are in schools everyday trying to support pupils and deliver the national qualifications. I challenge the SQA to engage with the profession and consider the findings of the SSTA survey. 2,124 secondary teachers, SSTA members cannot all be wrong.

The largest resistance to the SQA proposals came from teachers delivering higher qualification with up to 91% in some subjects. 

Modern Studies91%
Art and Design85%
Modern Foreign Languages85%
Religious Moral Education79%
Home Economics69%
Technological Education64%
Physical Education59%
Computing Science56%
Business Education44%

71% of teachers said that their pupils would need a lot or a great deal of support to be able to meet the requirements of the pre-pandemic arrangements. In addition, 76% said that increase in teacher workload would go up a lot or a great deal. This is a situation that cannot be ignored, and I hope the Scottish Government will intervene and protect our pupils who already struggling and teachers that have no capacity to meet these imposed changes.

The Hayward Review

The SSTA raised major concerns over the progress of the Hayward Review and the lack of engagement of teachers in secondary schools. No time had been allocated in schools for teachers to consider the report so they were denied the opportunity to consider the proposals. The review did not tap into teachers’ deep breadth and knowledge as a result.

The main proposals

  • an end to high stake exams at S4, S5 and S6 
  • an end to S4 exams for students who will continue with a subject beyond that year
  • subject and curricular courses in the senior phase of secondary school would typically last for two years
  • most students would accumulate credits throughout the two-year programme and take an external exam at the end of the second year.
  • a ‘Scottish Diploma of Achievement’ to include a full range of achievements – not just academic qualifications

Professor Hayward said
“This approach would lead to a better balance between external assessment, including examinations, and other ways of gathering evidence across the senior phase. We know that adding more to the workload of teachers and others is not sustainable and feel that decisions must be taken to identify what teachers stop doing to allow space for new practices to evolve”.

The SSTA fears that the review will have unintended consequences for teachers, pupils, and schools.  We anticipate that teachers will be left to ‘pick-up the pieces’ and this will add to the pressures and workload that they already experience. The Scottish Diploma of Achievement is “primarily intended to allow evidence of learner achievements to be gathered in a broader range of areas than is currently the case”.

I fear the complicated teachers labour intensive moderation and verification processes will only add teacher workload. We can all remember the pressure and stresses of the Alternative Certification Model created by the SQA only a few years ago. I believe we need to be ready to give a trade union response and say ‘enough is enough’.

Pupil Behaviour

A survey was designed by the SSTA ASN and Education Committees in a response to the deteriorating situation in schools. The survey had a fantastic 2,478 responses.

The survey identified the types of behaviours that are reducing teaching time for all pupils up to 10% in S1 and up to 20% in S2 and S3.

These are the same cohort of pupils you are preparing for qualifications next session. You will recognise the behaviours and the results will not be a surprise. I am sure they will be a surprise to parents and those in Council offices.

Defiance including refusal to work (84%)

Mobile devise misuse (71%),

Disrespect (63%),

Wandering in class and in the corridors (51%),

Interruption in lessons (43%).

Abusive language 37%

Late to class 32%

Grandstanding (clowning) 30%

Verbal aggression 25%

75% of members stated that they had experienced verbal aggression and one in eight members reported physical aggression. But only 9% reported all incidents and 13% some incidents. What of 79% (3 out of 4) who did not report the incidents. 25% said there was a lack of time, 8% discouraged, 18% didn’t know how.

This can probably be explained that nearly half 47% of pupil’s were returned to class before the matter was resolved. Together with only 31% of members felt supported when experiencing poor pupil behaviour.

A member said.

“I have often asked pupils why they behave as they do and the response is always, "because I can!”

Under Reporting of Poor Pupil Behaviour 

The SSTA survey emphasised the high level of incidents in schools that are not being reported. There is a denial culture in the system that fails to acknowledge how serious the situation is in schools. Teachers are suffering and there appears to be little support to address the problem. Pressure is exerted on schools and local authorities to push the numbers down for fear of reputational damage. Many teachers see little point in reporting incidents as no action will be taken. They are often blamed for causing the incident, this is leaving teachers feeling unsupported and is perceived as a measure taken by management to avoid dealing with the pupil. Some teachers are fearful of making reports as they do not want to be seen as the cause of the problem. The SSTA has stated that the employers and the Scottish Government need to acknowledge there is a problem.  If they take ownership of this, poor behaviour can be tackled.

This survey has provided clear evidence of an aggression epidemic sweeping through our schools which has left many teachers feeling unsafe at work and unsupported by employers who have a legal duty to ensure their health and safety.

No teacher should have to go to work worried in case they will be a victim of verbal aggression or even assault that day. School managements must ensure that appropriate actions are taken in response to violence and verbal aggression against staff, including properly risk assessing pupils with a propensity for violent outbursts before any decision is taken to return those pupils to their classes.

Teacher Retention and Recruitment

It cannot be underestimated the importance of teachers’ pay in the battle to retain and recruit teachers in Scotland. The performance of COSLA who represent the employers in delaying for more than a year to reach an agreement in 2021 was inexcusable but to do it again in 2022 is at least disrespectful and a worse vicious. COSLA’s performance during the pay dispute was not one of an employer who respects its employees. It seemed to be an organisation content to see schools closed, pupils miss education and quite happy to bank teachers’ money for taking strike action.

This was seen again in those councils that were not prepared to act and ensure teacher back pay was paid as soon as possible when a pay deal was done. There must be serious consideration for the role COSLA plays at the negotiating table.

I cannot commend enough the leadership and commitment of the SSTA Salaries and Executive Committees for steering the association through a very challenging pay dispute. And, of course, the thousands of members who took industrial action, many for the very first time, in support of our pay claim and achieved a good outcome.

A good pay deal was achieved but it should have been achieved without the need for strike action. Teachers did not want to be on strike but had no option when the employer was unprepared to negotiate. It was to our disadvantage that many parents and members of the public supported the teachers and were not knocking down the doors of the politicians.

Teacher Health and Wellbeing

With teacher pay resolved for this year, notwithstanding the pressures of poor pupil behaviour, teacher workload must be brought under control. A failure to address teacher workload or more fittingly guarding teacher health and wellbeing that will have a detriment impact upon the retention and recruitment of teachers.

I have said before why not ‘pull out all the stops’ to encourage teachers to stay? This could be achieved by paying teachers properly, providing a ‘real’ career structure, valuing teacher’s professional judgment, reducing workload, and giving teachers ‘real’ support with the appropriate educational professionals in meeting the challenges that pupils bring into schools.

A common theme is the expectation of teachers is that they need to do far more than what appears within their job description. Is it any wonder many of our members are reluctant to undertake management roles where they exist, and probably these are the exact people who know their limitations, what is possible and what is not, that should be encouraged into these positions.

Teachers are crying out for a career pathway that recognises curricular specialism, that runs in parallel with the existing leadership/management routes.

The ever-increasing demands by Government, Education Scotland, Inspectors, SQA and local authorities, is taking away the little joy left in teaching, with teachers walking away disheartened and broken. Not just at the end of their careers but many in mid-career with some much more to offer.

Teachers are demoralised by the never-ending and increasing teacher workload. More new initiatives, more tracking and monitoring, more record keeping, more personalised learning plans, more accountability for every move and every decision a teacher makes, and of course a national qualification system that appears to go out of its way to dream up new ways to increase teacher bureaucracy.

Excessive workload demands over several years has been adding pressure and stress upon teachers. This is unsustainable and is damaging teachers’ health. The SSTA demands a plan to address the sources of the excessive demands on teacher time. Teachers need time and space to do their job and there is very little of that about. It is always worth reminding our members that all teachers including Head Teachers, have a maximum 35-hour week contract. 

Teachers must be prepared to fight to take back control of their workload. Agree sensible and properly accounted for Working Time Agreements that recognise the professional judgment of the teacher and gives strength to our members to say NO.

Teachers must be allowed to make decisions on what is a priority, what is appropriate to prepare for lessons, the how they structure lessons, the method of assessment, and be trusted to present pupils for national qualifications without the excessive scrutiny of outside agencies.

We must put the professionalism of the teacher, the importance of teaching and learning at the front on our agenda, remember how you were treated during the pay dispute and end this culture of we can do everything and put a stop to